Crime and Punishment

In spite of what politicians may tell us, crime has declined dramatically since the 1990s. Sure, policy makers can always point out exceptions (murder rates in Dallas and Chicago, for example), but most of us do not live in areas where those exceptions apply and those statistics are not indicative of overall trends. You can click HERE to read ten possible explanations for the decline. Remember that they are just theories.

Politicians often want us to believe crime is at an “all time high” because it is an emotional issue that captivates our attention and, consequently, they can claim to be “tough on crime” and win our votes.  This demagoguery keeps Americans from understanding the truth AND it causes a large number of us to live in an unnecessary state of fear.

The common argument that crime rates are higher in the United States than any other countries is also incorrect; we actually rank 53rd of 125 countries included in the current crime index. However, our crime rate is, unfortunately, higher than in countries we would consider our social and economic peers. Why that is true is a question that does not lend itself to a simple answer.

Of course folks in academia have developed all sorts of cool theories to explain American crime, but finding one theory that explains all crime just isn’t possible. Someone who walks in on a spouse having “relations” with another person might react violently for one reason whereas someone acting violently in another context might have a different reason. Someone who steals groceries to feed her family commits a crime for different reasons than someone steals a car to go for a ride. So theories explaining crime are by nature limited.

Arguments regarding crime are complicated by the fact that crime is what we say it is. Some crimes are fairly obvious and are generally common to most societies (murder, theft, etc.) while others are not necessarily obvious and are defined by each society (pornography, drug use, traffic laws, prostitution, etc.).  Laws are not always rational and are often passed for all the wrong reasons (which I’ll explore sometime soon), so expending resources enforcing those laws is illogical. In an earlier post I argued that most drug laws make no sense. I would add laws creating our current system of taxation and OTHERS  (you should read some of these for fun).

A final issue is appropriate punishment for crimes. The Constitution says a punishment cannot be “cruel and unusual” and state constitutions impose similar restrictions, but legislatures otherwise have a great deal of latitude in assigning punishments to crimes. Again, some punishments are obvious (a fine for speeding makes more sense than death by firing squad) and others are not (should non-violent offenders be imprisoned).

Although states and the federal government occasionally review their civil and criminal codes, there is never a wholesale attempt to reconsider those codes and determine whether they are still reasonable.  Nor do these governments consistently examine possible causes for various crimes and attempt to address them. I believe it is time to reconsider crime and punishment, and here is an outline of what I propose.

First we need to determine which of our fellow citizens’ actions might elicit fear. In other words, which criminals am I really afraid of? That one is actually pretty easy, at least in my mind. I’m afraid of murderers, rapists, heroin and meth dealers, child abusers, armed robbers, arsonists, terrorists, those guilty of aggravated assault. I’m less fearful of embezzlers, drug abusers, minor drug distributers, those committing fraud, and other non-violent offenders. I’m also less afraid of speeders, those running traffic lights, and other motor vehicle criminals (with the exception of impaired drivers). I’m not afraid of drug users, prostitutes, gamblers, and other non-violent offenders and I would either decriminalize or legalize those activities.

Then we have to assign consequences to criminal actions, and my ideas here are pretty radical because I think we need to reconsider the purpose of prisons. We should stop thinking of them as “corrections” facilities and begin thinking of them as places we send people of whom we are afraid. For life. If I’m afraid of a rapist today I will still be afraid of him or her in twenty years. I feel the same about any violent offenders. No three strikes because in this game you only get one. Maybe there could be a way for the offenders to demonstrate that we no longer need to fear them at some point in the future, but I don’t know of any such way. So the only people I’d send to prison are violent offenders.

I’d be creative with non-violent offenders and the punishment would vary by the crime. For minor offenses (traffic violations, minor embezzlement, corporate fraud, etc.) I would continue imposing fines; the more severe the crime the higher the fine. The goal is to deter future behavior by the offender and others. Does deterrence work for some crimes? Yes. I only need to ask; why do you stay within a few MPH of the speed limit when you drive? Most of us do so because we fear a fine.

For more serious criminal offenders I would require community service, electronic monitoring, shock boot camp (I know repeat DUI offenders whose lives were turned around by this experience), and various rehabilitation services. We should allow judges to exercise creativity so they may craft an appropriate punishment for each circumstance.

We should also eliminate three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences, but I’ll save those for later.

As of March, 2016 the United States was holding more than 2.3 million prisoners in its federal, state, and local prisons, and more than half of those incarcerated were confined for non violent offenses. You probably know that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, yet we still have the highest crime rate of all similar countries. I really think it is time to reconsider our ideas regarding crime and punishment.


Government For The People

“…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”  (Declaration of Independence)

“…We the people…”  (First three words of the United States Constitution)

“The great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of those who are parties to the social compact.” (John Quincy Adams)

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

In our hearts we want to believe that governments at all levels (local, state, national) exercise their powers based on some notion of what is good for “we the people”.  Consequently, we believe,  laws are passed with our best interest in mind and that they benefit society as a whole.  There is no doubt many laws do in fact serve society well.  Speed limits on highways, laws requiring the regular inspection and overhaul of airplanes, restrictions on dumping pollutants into the air and water, and limits on corporate monopolies all protect us in one way or the other.  Using such examples we might assume government does actually work in the people’s interest.

An extensive 2014 study concluded otherwise.  Researchers at two universities (Northwestern and Princeton) examined about 1,800 laws passed by the government in Washington over a twenty year period and compared those laws to the public’s preferences.  They determined that government’s decisions rarely favor the “common” American but almost always  favor the “economic elite” instead.  They did find that policies (laws) are much more likely to pass when support is favored by groups from all economic levels, and this is frequently the case, so in those instances the common folks are represented.  More significantly, however, if the elite class opposes a measure it has only an 18% likelihood of passing.  They also conclude that “the average citizen or the ‘median voter’ has little or no independent influence on public policy” when average voters’ preferences contradict those of the wealthy elite.

The authors’ conclusions: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Is this a surprise?  Probably not.  The argument certainly predates C. Wright Mills’ 1956 conclusion that “all the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it” or Charles Beard’s 1912 conclusion that “The fundamental division of powers in the Constitution of the United States is between voters on the one hand and property owners on the other”.  In fact our Founders themselves created a type of class system when they refused women and minorities the right to vote, had the president chosen by an electoral college over which voters had no influence, had the U.S. senators appointed by state legislatures rather than elected, and affirmed a system only allowing white male property owners to vote.

It would be difficult to argue that a great deal has changed.

  • If you have ever fought with insurance companies over worker compensation claims you probably learned very quickly that the work comp laws favor the insurance companies (and were possibly written by them).  My wife and I have personal experience with this.
  • When large banks or major industries suffer catastrophic losses (frequently because of mismanagement) the government will often bail them out, but it doesn’t do so for small companies, homeowners facing foreclosure or students with loan debt.  I am in no way arguing that government should bail out any of these folks, but if we believe in capitalism I’m not sure government should be bailing out failing companies.
  • Oh…and when we bailed out the banks in 2008/2009, $1.6 billion went to the executives of those banks.  The top five Goldman Sachs executives pocketed a total of $242 million at a time when taxpayers were saving their company.  Your. Tax. Dollars.
  • The Constitution’s “Takings Clause” allows governments to take private property via eminent domain for “public use” by providing “just compensation”.  Much of this makes sense because society needs highways, for example, so government must have a mechanism for taking property required for building them.  However, in Kelo v City of New London (2005) the Supreme Court expanded the Takings Clause to allow government to take property for “economic development”.  Ms. Kelo’s property was seized to make room for a pharmaceutical company’s new building, a plan that was later abandoned.  So Ms. Kelo was without her property and the property was ultimately not used. Similar abuses of eminent domain have occurred across the country, and the local property owners are always the loser. In Boonville, MO, about twenty minutes from my house, the city granted eminent domain power to a company to force the sale of property so a casino could be built over the objections and legal challenges of property owners.
  • Each year there are numerous examples of corporations that earn billions in profit but pay no taxes.  In fact many of these actually receive a rebate from the IRS (see the link below).  I’m not sure about you, but I’m fairly certain my good Uncle (Sam) takes a good portion of my income every two weeks.
  • As of 2017 the first $127,200 of income is subject to the Social Security tax.  Yes, I realize that this is quite a bit more than the average American earns, but it also means that a person earning $50,000 per year will pay exactly the same amount as someone earning millions (or billions).  In that respect the Social Security tax has a greater adverse affect on those with lower incomes.

Similar examples abound.

Before you start calling me a flaming liberal or socialist, you should know that concerns over this disparity and consequent income inequality cross ideological and income boundaries.  Last spring Charles Koch, the conservative billionaire who has historically supported conservative candidates and causes, told ABC News that the economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and that the U.S. tax code does in fact offer “corporate welfare” to companies such as his.  He and Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest person, have argued for years that the tax codes are unfair and that the wealthy should be paying more in taxes.

Income inequality matters, and it matters more now than possibly any time in history.  The steady economic growth since the 1970’s has not affected all income groups equally.  The truth is that during the last forty years the rich have truly become richer while incomes for the poor have not significantly improved.  Many Americans still live in poverty, and that number would be much higher were it not for government “safety net” programs (SNAP, TANF, SSI, etc.) that have actually reduced the number of people living in poverty since the 1960’s in spite of the growing income gap.

So why does this income inequality matter?  A 2015 piece in The Atlantic concluded that in addition to the obvious inability to buy things, including necessities, the folks at the bottom of the income scale suffer in at least three ways.  First, the growing disparity in incomes has led to “residential segregation” as a result of the growing number of people living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and it self-perpetuates because these folks and their children have difficulty finding a way out of those neighborhoods.  Second, children growing up in poor families generally have limited access to higher quality education throughout their lives.  Finally, the authors conclude that children in these neighborhoods also have less access to “enrichment goods” and fewer social networks, and studies demonstrate they are more likely to suffer from “toxic stress” resulting in hampered brain development and lower earning potential. The authors conclude that policies reducing taxes on the rich (eliminating the estate tax, for example) increase the burden on the poor and, interestingly, often harm the children of the wealthy because they lose incentive to be productive, an idea argued by wealthy philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and others in the 1800s.

In addition, there is evidence that other social ills such as crime and unplanned teenage pregnancy are more closely associated with income disparity than with poverty itself.

These are powerful arguments for seeking ways to close the income gap.  I’m not optimistic that such alternatives will be actually sought in the current political environment where money dominates politics (the topic of an earlier post).




The Drug Problem

Until about six years ago what I knew about America’s drug problem was what was reported in the news. I assumed drug abuse and addiction were isolated and only impacted a relatively small number of people. Then the real world came crashing in and we had to help our 19 year-old son enter a substance abuse program because of his struggles with opiates and other drugs. As a consequence I now know a great deal about the drug crisis facing our country, much more than I ever wanted to know, and I am certain that our current approach to solving that crisis does not work.

One response offered when this topic is broached is that an individual chooses to start taking drugs, and that is certainly true. However, a reliable national survey indicates that some children are abusing drugs by the age of 12, meaning they likely started even earlier. Our own son started smoking marijuana at 12, and we had absolutely no clue. When he was in his late teens we realized he was smoking weed, but we thought the use was rare and we had no idea he had turned to harder drugs until a few months prior to helping him find treatment (which, by the way, he asked for). And yes, I’m in tears as I write this because the pain parents go through in this situation is indescribable. I also hurt for the eight friends my son has lost to overdose. The ones I knew were great kids, just like our son.  I also weep for others who still struggle every second of every minute of every day; you can take me at my word when I say that a large majority hate their lives and want desperately to quit.

Anyway, are we really going to hold children responsible for the mistakes made at age 12 or earlier even though we know that continued use over time makes quitting ANY drug difficult? I don’t want to be held responsible for all the stupid stuff I did in my late teens (and maybe early twenties), much less for the things I did at 12.  And today I’m a coffee addict and have been for 40 years, and if I try to quit I know the consequences (Because I have tried. Dumb idea!). Apply that challenge 1,000 times over to drugs that are 1) very, very, very enticing and 2) much more addictive, and I’m amazed anyone ever wins the battle.

Here are some other relevant facts:

  • Deaths from drug overdose reached an all time high in 2015 (the latest year for which statistics are available), with about 50,000 deaths reported. The number of drug-related deaths more than doubled between 2002 and 2015.  The number of deaths from opioid overdose  rose 2.8 times during that period, with more than 30,000 deaths. And the number of heroin-related deaths reached about 13,000 in 2015, a number 6.2 times higher than in 2002.
  • As of 2014 it was estimated that our economy suffers about $700 billion each year because of tobacco ($295 billion), alcohol ($224 billion), and illegal drugs ($193 billion). These result from required medical care, lost productivity, and crime.
  • In 2013, the last year a nationwide survey of almost 25 million Americans was conducted, 9.4% of the population over 12 admitted to using illegal drugs during the last month. Almost 20 million had smoked marijuana in the last month, up more than 5 million from the 2007 survey (and remember that this drug is still illegal in most states).
  • About 54% of current drug users started use as teenagers. Most began with marijuana.
  • According to the 2013 survey 22.7 million Americans needed drug treatment but only 2.5 million received that treatment.

So our current approach just isn’t working. It perfectly describes the definition of insanity generally attributed to Einstein (though he likely borrowed it): “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It is time to try something else.

A 2014 Pew poll found that 2/3 of Americans believed those arrested with illegal drugs should be offered treatment options rather than incarcerated, yet today 46% of federal prisoners (more than 82,000) are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. For comparison, the next highest number of federal prisoners was convicted on “weapons, explosives, or arson” charges, and they comprise only 16.8% of the federal prison population. On the state level, about 16% of prisoners are serving time for drug offenses (as of 2015). So punishment remains a major option when dealing with drug offenders.

Please understand that I am very “law and order” minded and I argue for severe punishment for violent offenders or others of whom we are afraid, but I’ll address that another time. If a drug offender is also charged with a related crime such as robbery, assault, or vehicular homicide, I want that offender off the streets. However, if the offender is only committing a crime of drug possession or minor dealing, I’d address it another way. On a personal note, by the way, I hope there is a special unpleasant cranny in the afterlife for heroin, meth, and illegal opioid sellers, and I’d punish them severely in this life as well because they are murderers.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but according to my sources (I’ve gotten to know a lot of teenagers during the last few years), it is easier for those under age 21 to purchase illegal drugs than alcohol because drug dealers don’t care how old the buyer is whereas the convenience store doesn’t want to lose its selling license and bars don’t want to lose their pouring license. Of course we could crack down even more on selling alcohol to those who are under 21 (I would probably change that to 18 if I had my way, but that is for another discussion) by making liquor licenses expensive and making it almost impossible to regain a license lost for selling to underage customers.

I would also legalize marijuana (and I am NOT promoting its use), regulate the heck out of it to ensure growers were not mixing in addictive chemicals (as was done by tobacco companies), charge large sums  for selling licenses, and impose strict penalties for selling to minors. There is little doubt that continued use of the drug is harmful, that it is especially harmful to adolescents whose brains are still developing, and it is dangerous during pregnancy. So is consuming alcohol (yet I still enjoy the IPA). Adults should be able to make the choice whether to use it but children should not. I repeat what I stated earlier; kids have no trouble at all buying marijuana now even though it is illegal.

I would not legalize other drugs but I would decriminalize them, and I would always favor treatment options first. Many states have been experimenting with “drug court” options for non-violent possession and minor distribution cases in recent years, and they have been very successful. Recidivism rates are drastically reduced and crimes that often accompany drugs have been reduced as much as 45% over other sentencing options. Drug courts require those convicted to seek treatment, and the judge monitors success (the one convicted is subject to random urinalysis and other testing). I know kids who have turned their lives around because of drug court. It works much better than sending someone to prison at a cost of $30,000 per year where he or she learns about a lot of other cool crimes to commit upon release.

The bottom line is this: Treatment does not always work, but it does work for a good number of addicts.  The war on drugs is a failure by every significant measure, and both liberal and conservative media outlets have reached that conclusion.  Even the Law Enforcement Action Partners (LEAP), an organization created by law enforcement officers, argues for abandoning the unwinnable war.  Let’s try something new and use a portion of the war on drug money for treatment.

Oh, and our son who entered treatment at 19?  He has been clean and sober since May 13, 2011 and is now a drug counselor working with young people to help them overcome dependency. Treatment saved his life and is saving countless others. And the truth is I would not change a thing because the experience has strengthened me as a person and our relationship as a family. I’m just happy and fortunate that our son survived.

America’s New Drug Policy Landscape

Drug Policy